I WANTED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT," is how Kristy McNichol explained her decision, in 1988, to star in the NBC sitcom Empty Nest after an Emmy-winning career as a dramatic actress. "I'd done so much crying." Comedy, as she had hoped, proved curative. The hit series rehabilitated McNichol's career, which had sagged after her much publicized breakdown in 1982, when she walked off the set of Just the Way You Are 17 days before the feature film was scheduled to wrap. And Empty Nest aided in her recovery. By 1989, McNichol was able to say, "I feel like I'm this mountain of strength."

But that mountain crumbled late last month, when the 30-year-old actress took a sudden medical leave from Empty Nest. Executive producer Tony Thomas says he was informed of McNichol's voluntary hiatus by her physician, who said the actress was having difficulty managing her manic-depressive illness. Thomas recalls that he was "stunned," having seen nothing in McNichol's demeanor on the Hollywood set to indicate she was struggling. "There were absolutely zero outbursts," he says, denying tabloid reports that McNichol, who plays the series' undercover cop, Barbara, had been behaving irrationally.

In McNichol's absence, the sitcom will introduce Barbara's younger sister Emily (currently being cast), who has been off-camera attending college throughout the show's five-season run. Still, says Thomas, "we very much want Kris back when she feels strong enough to work, but that has to be totally determined by her."

Determining what is in one's best interest can be difficult for those suffering from bipolar disorder, the form of manic-depressive illness afflicting McNichol. Caused by a chemical imbalance, the illness results in mood swings from euphoria to disabling depression. During its manic phase, says Dr. Michael Gitlin, director of the Affective Disorders Clinic at UCLA, a person may sleep only two hours a night, talk incessantly and exercise poor judgment, "spending money foolisly and engaging in other forms of reckless behavior." Bipolar disorder cannot be "abolished," says Dr. Gitlin, but mood stabilizers such as lithium can "substantially decrease the severity and number of episodes." Though it is not known if McNichol is taking medication, she is recuperating at her Sherman Oaks home with her mother, her actor brother, Jimmy, 31, and her friend Martha Allen, 26, all at her side.

Typically manic-depressive illness first appears in early adulthood, triggered by stress. Such was the case for McNichol. Acting since the age of 8, she won two Emmys for her portrayal of the tomboyish Buddy on Family. By the time she hit the set of Just the Way You Are in the French Alps, she was 20 and working on her eighth movie in six years. "The whole month I was in France," McNichol has said, "I hardly slept.... I was freaking out, crying. confused." When production halted for Christmas, McNichol returned home to California and stayed. With intensive therapy, she returned to work and finished the film a year later. Still, her career was damaged by rumors of drug and alcohol abuse.

After her breakdown, McNichol found solace in anonymity, working briefly as a hairdresser. Hollywood, she discovered, could be unforgiving. Time after lime, she told PEOPLE in 1989, she would be hired for a part, but "at the last minute somebody would say no to me because of the past."

It was Empty Nest that finally said yes. "We love Kris," says an emotional Thomas. "We're so fond of her it's ridiculous. She never let [her illness] affect her work. She never hid behind it. She just delivered. And I think that is truly heroic."

SHELLEY LEVITT
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Joyce Wagner.